Monday, 9 June 2003

Wildlife Conservation

Wildlife Conservation, terrorists, guerrillas, and drugs

The World Land Trust is frequently approached by individuals who want our help in conserving areas of land that are threatened with development. We have also had a few time wasters - individuals owning land in the tropics who think they can make a quick buck, by selling it at a vast profit to a conservation charity.

But a more interesting development recently, was a proposal that we should buy land in Colombia. There is no question that the land is of biological and conservation importance. It is in one of the areas of the world’s greatest species diversity - a so-called biodiversity hotspot. And the land is cheap - relatively undamaged natural habitats at $35 a hectare - which means for around $5000 we could buy a reserve of round about 250 acres - a significant area. But one of the reasons the land is so cheap is that it is not entirely safe in the area, there are guerrillas. [ A 600-acre wildlife reserve in England recently cost over $1.5 million, - well over 100 times more expensive - which gives some perspective on the relative cost. And if the relative cost per species is calculated, it is even better value]

Should a charity like the WLT risk buying land in such circumstances? There are obvious security issues for its staff, but if it operates, as we always do, through a local NGO, and that local NGO is happy to acquire and manage land in those circumstances should we risk funding it?

My own view is that the general funds raised by the Trust for land purchase should not be used - after all the majority of the general public and companies supporting us would not expect any risks to be taken. And I am sure that most other charities and non-profits would have similar policies. However, what such a policy does mean, is that real opportunities to do something really positive, at very low cost are probably being missed. But if a wealthy private individual wanted to donate to the WLT with specific request that the funds be used for such a venture it would be an entirely different matter.

That such conservation opportunities are available I have seen first hand. Soon after the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Southern Lebanon, I visited the area - there were some very real opportunities for imaginative conservation. And fortunately there were people interested in enough to take the initiative. But in Colombia, they wouldn’t need to be fabulously wealthy - $5000 - $10,000 could make a really meaningful contribution.

My brief experience in Lebanon led me to believe that wildlife conservation could play an important role in conflict torn areas. Despite more than two decades of war in Lebanon, the conservation movement had grown up and flourished, with very little outside contact. It reminded me that in 1975 I had been present at a ceremony in what was then Zaire, presenting medals to wardens who had guarded the national parks throughout their recent civil war. And in Rwanda, the guards stayed loyal, and the gorillas survived, despite the terrible genocide. More recently, last year I visited Uganda, where there are many very enthusiastic and dedicated conservationist, despite the years of war.

So is there serious philanthropy somewhere in cyberspace? If anyone fancies being really innovative and putting up some funds I’d be delighted to hear from them.

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